Around twenty years ago as a graduate student, I attended a gathering in Princeton organized to kick off a campaign for a federal marriage amendment. That gathering included a Who’s Who of socially conservative academics, pastors, and activists. I had just settled down in my seat at a table near the back of the conference room when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Princeton University’s Robert P. George, who whispered to me with a sly grin—channeling Jesus in Mark 14—“Friend, come up to the higher table.”
I followed Professor George to a table near the front of the conference room and sat down only to look around and see that on my right was Charles Colson and on my left was James Dobson. I don’t really remember much about the conversation, but for a starstruck young evangelical raised in the ’70s and ’80s by parents who had Dare to Discipline and Born Again on their bookshelves, this was like sitting next to evangelical royalty.
Much has changed in twenty years. Colson passed away in 2012. Dobson is still active in many ways but has understandably slowed down in his 80s, and is perhaps most known in recent years for characterizing Donald Trump as a “baby Christian” in 2016. The evangelicalism that they did so much to define in the last fifty years, following figures like Billy Graham and many others, is embattled, lively, marginalized, shrinking, or unrecognizable, depending on whom you ask.
I begin this book review in such a personal fashion in part because Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America is a very personal book. I also begin this way because if you were to ask me before 2016 who would most likely be the next Charles Colson for politically conscious and devout evangelicals, I would have said Russell Moore.
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As I noted, much has changed.
Russell Moore currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the evangelical mainstay magazine Christianity Today, originally founded through the efforts of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. He hails from the Southern Baptist (SBC) stream of evangelicalism, having served in senior posts at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). He is a gifted preacher and an incisive and insightful academic.
At my first tenure-track job working among many SBC friends and colleagues at Union University, we hosted Moore twice, once to mark an anniversary of George’s Making Men Moral, and the other to speak on marriage at a conference honoring Colson after he passed. If you follow those links to the audio and video of those remarks respectively, you’ll better understand how remarkable a speaker and thinker Moore is, and how close the family resemblance is to his elder brother in the evangelical faith, Chuck Colson. While Moore was at the time a big fish in the Southern Baptist pond, he transcended those boundaries, working with Christians in other traditions and crossing over into secular venues as well.
Today, Moore is no longer part of the SBC, and Southern Baptist views on him range from mildly sympathetic to hostile to vitriolic. Losing Our Religion is in part an account of this falling out. It aligns with much of our national narrative of the epistemic and cultural fracturing that may not have started with Trump’s election in 2016, but was certainly exacerbated by it, followed by the summer of George Floyd, and the compounding stress of the Covid-19 pandemic and our governments’ (federal/state/local) medico-political responses. Add to this tumultuous mix the scandalous sexual abuse epidemic rampant in so much of evangelicalism (and elsewhere), and one has the proverbial perfect storm. Moore’s writing here then is something of a memoir and a testimony, in good evangelical fashion, taking us back to the heartfelt and fervent faith of his youth and through what can only be described as a painful and poignant break-up with the religious tradition that nurtured and raised him. Moore only occasionally names names (Jerry Falwell, Jr., for example), and often cites anonymous comments shared with him by his fellow churchgoers. But SBC insiders will recognize the specific scenes and acts—and actors—in the last few years of SBC drama.
There has been something of a cottage industry of publications on the status of evangelicalism. Some are defiant and fiery defenses of what has become the status quo. Others are more sociological or historical accounts that treat evangelicalism not as a spiritually inspired and genuine (if imperfect) movement, but a political, cultural, or even racist and sexist ideology masquerading as religious. And then there are the “ex-vangelical” accounts of many who were raised in evangelical homes, but have come to leave either that version of Christianity or Christianity itself. Fortunately, Moore’s book fits none of these categories.
The book is not only a memoir but a lament, a jeremiad, and an indictment. As Moore tells it, Southern Baptist churches in particular, and evangelical churches generally, are floundering not because of hostile external cultural forces conspiring to snuff out our witness, or because too many politicians from the wrong political party hold office. Nor is it because the good news of the Christian faith is too outlandish for our secular age. The outside world does not find our message persuasive, and our own children are leaving the faith, not necessarily because they reject the content of that message and faith, but because they think the church itself rejects its own teachings. How could Christians believe our own teachings if we do not just reluctantly support but openly celebrate Donald Trump, cover up for sexual predators, move slowly on or even resist racial reconciliation efforts, and put lives at risk by denying medical science in the face of a pandemic?
One crucial question that Moore does not address explicitly enough is the matter of audience. Who makes up the “we” and the “our” in the previous sentence? To whom is Moore’s altar call addressed? Who is being called on to repent and for which actions or inactions? Each of these topics—Trump, sexual abuse, race, Covid—invokes a host of contested claims about facts, principles, and prudence that make a Gordian knot look like a gossamer thread. One can, and in my view should, agree with certain ends or principles attached to each: moral character should matter for political leadership, sexual abuse (especially by clergy) is a demonic affront to God and those who bear his image, racial reconciliation is a moral and Christian imperative, and life and health are basic goods to be protected and promoted by public authorities. Unfortunately, these ends are not as widely shared as they should be; but even assuming agreement on ends, how to choose and enact the best means to pursue these ends in the public square, with imperfect knowledge and competing priorities, is enormously difficult, and requires charity in our engagement with others.
Hence the question of audience for Moore’s outreach. In his critique, it’s difficult to distinguish between truly bad actors in positions of power and more modest pew-sitters who may have varying degrees of culpability for this or that political position or attitude. Moore does distinguish between Jerry Falwell, Jr. and some evangelical Trump supporters “with whom I disagreed but whose positions were reasonable and understandable,” but readers will have to get to page 178 to find that nuance. Moore also rightly acknowledges the reality of a hostile and utopian secular Left, but that’s the exception more than the rule. Other than those caveats, the indictment of the evangelical church is scathing. In the preceding pages, Moore wonders if conservative Christianity is not the “Shire” but “was Mordor all along;” describes the church as identified “with Machiavelli-like cruelty and Caligula-like vulgarity;” suggests Bible Belt churches conformed to “remnant outposts of the Confederate States of America;” and likens the SBC to a “nuclear-reactor-level meltdown.”
Added to these charges is the prescription of insanity: “Crazy wins—in the short run.” “The gospel is a sign of contradiction, not a sign of insanity”; “when outsiders are convinced we are out of our minds because of our incoherence, that’s our problem.” “People in the vortex of craziness . . . tell themselves they have to play along with things they find insane”; and speakers of the true gospel don’t appeal to the “limbic system” or “depersonalize people into a faceless crowd of channeled anger.”
Moore is not wrong to see all of these things, not only in the American evangelical church but in the broader culture as well. There have been and remain spiritual rot and moral wickedness in Christian leadership, institutions, and laypeople. Such is the scandal of human depravity that it should still shock and dismay us, while theologically it should not surprise us. What I find difficult in Moore’s indictment is that readers may understandably fail to distinguish between the grotesque buffoonery of a Jerry Falwell, Jr. sucking up to Trump, and a blue-collar factory worker who supports Trump because he’s worried about his job being sent overseas and doesn’t want to support abortion. Or between a lily-white church leader who avoids race matters at all costs, and the white Southern Baptist who cares about race relations but has concerns about the Black Lives Matter political organization. Or between the grandstanding local pastor who buys into noxious Covid-19 conspiracy theories, and the mom who finds Anthony Fauci’s prevarications troubling, and worries about having her children vaccinated.
There is a lot of craziness out there, but it’s hard to persuade people they need renewal, even repentance, if the primary thing they hear from you is that they are wicked, crazy, or stupid. It was a truism in the evangelicalism I grew up in, but like many truisms, it circulated for a reason: they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. One of the knocks on Moore from his co-religionists to his right is that he curries favor with cultural elites at the expense of his less sophisticated co-religionists. Even though Moore remains robustly pro-life and traditional on sexual ethics, critics will point to his New York Times columns and his upcoming appearance in a Rob Reiner–produced film that lambastes conservative Christians. I wish this book did more to counter this criticism.
If there is a primary fault in Losing Our Religion, it is that Moore’s understandably personal and near-gobsmacked account of what went sour between him and his church compromises his standing to appeal to his brothers and sisters to choose a more excellent way. Having read and listened to Moore for some time, I believe he loves the evangelical church, and even still the SBC; but at times, the book runs the risk of conveying a contempt that former American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks warned us about.
This risk is truly unfortunate, for in addition to elements of memoir, jeremiad, lament, and indictment, the book includes several counts of Moore’s wisdom and counsel for persevering through a challenging season. Under subheadings like “Rekindle Awe,” “Cultivate Loyalty in Community,” “Believe and Share the Gospel,” and “Pay Attention to Means, Not Just to Ends,” Moore’s pastoral voice takes center stage and points his readers toward healthier ways of cultivating peace of mind and engaging our neighbors and society. And Moore’s conclusion, relating his childhood profession of faith in Christ to where he is now in 2023, is a wonderful stand-alone meditation that reminds me of the best of evangelical faith and fervor.
Losing Our Religion is a complicated book, and readers will find much to agree and disagree with, as I did. It offers a fascinating, personal, raw, and at times puzzling look into our recent and ongoing struggles with faith, politics, culture, and loving—or at least co-existing with—our neighbors.
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus warned us in Chapter 16 of the Gospel of John, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” We will no doubt continue to disagree vigorously about that trouble, where it comes from, and what to do about it, but Christians can take heart in the promise that someday the troubles will end, our differences will be overcome, and we will be reconciled.